WASHINGTON, DC-They come, they see, they buy. That’s the essential conclusion of a new report, updating one in 1997, on the shopping habits of foreign tourists in the United States. Shopping continues to rank the highest on the list of activities overall for international travelers while visiting the United States, according to the report. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 (87%) of overseas and Mexican air travelers, or 16.8 million people, shopped during their visit to the United States in 2003.

The report is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Commerce and Taubman Centers Inc., a shopping center REIT headquartered in suburban Detroit. The Commerce Dept. does a monthly survey of foreign nationals traveling to the United States, typically as they are waiting for their flight home, or while they are flying en route home. “The survey measures 35 different characteristics of the visit, how long they stayed, how much they spend, and so forth,” Helen Marino, director of the office of travel and tourism industries at the Commerce Dept., tells GSR. To ascertain the shopping habits of international travelers, Taubman had a custom analysis of the government data made, according to Marino.

The 2004 report is a follow-up to an earlier study, developed six years ago, comparing shoppers and “cultural shoppers” to the United States from the top four international markets, by examining such things as trip planning, travel characteristics, travel behavior and expenditures. “It’s clear that international travelers play a significant role in the American retail marketplace,” says Karen Mac Donald, director of communications at Taubman. “This study illustrates the value of combining both shopping and cultural tourism to create a more well-rounded travel experience for the international travelers.”

Mac Donald tells GSR that quantifying tourist shopping has long been of interest to the shopping center REIT. “We’ve been involved with promoting tourism, and shopping by tourists, for more than a decade,” she says. “At first, some of our properties noticed a lot of tourists coming to shop, and later we examined that phenomenon portfolio-wide.”

As a company, Taubman also began attending tourism industry shows, and later established a working relationship with the Department of Commerce, ultimately funding the original 1997 study and following it up this year. The REIT’s CEO, Robert Taubman, is also on the U.S. Travel & Tourism Advisory Board, which promotes overseas tourism to the United States.

Among the top 24 regions/countries generating travelers, the U.K., Japan, Mexico (air only) and Germany take the top four spots, according to the report. Across those four markets, “cultural shoppers” (those who both shop and participate in a cultural activity, such as attending a concert or visiting a national park or museum) report longer stays of at least two more nights, and higher on average spending levels than general travelers and shoppers. Cultural shoppers also visit a greater number of states and are more likely to be new-to-market travelers.

Cultural differences and spending habits make each a unique market segment. For instance, the U.K. represented 22% of total overseas tourist traffic to the United States in 2003, and it also generated more shoppers (3.5 million) than any other market, representing a 6% increase in total British traffic and a 7% increase in British shopper traffic over 1997. The U.K. also led all other countries in producing cultural shoppers to the tune of 1.3 million in 2003. That’s more than double the number from runner-up Germany and far outdistances other top markets: Japan, France, and Mexico (air) travelers.

Japan ranks as the second-largest shopper country to the United States, representing 18% of all overseas travelers to the United States. Compared with the other three markets, the Japanese were the biggest shoppers in proportion, with over 92% reporting shopping activity while in the United States, followed by the U.K., with 89.4%.

While German visitors, especially German cultural shoppers, spent the most on their trips to the United States, Japanese shoppers spent the most per day, averaging $140 per visitor expenditure per day. Mexican shoppers were next to the Japanese, with $134 per day. Importantly, Mexican shoppers were among the most frequent travelers to the United States, having averaged 4.0 prior trips across the border in the past 12 months.

Florida was the favorite state for British travelers and British shoppers in 2003. But those travelers interested in combining shopping with cultural tourism picked New York as their top destination. Hawaii was by far the most popular destination for Japanese tourists, favored by more than 45%. California was the number-one tourist destination for both Mexican shoppers and Mexican cultural shoppers. Texas was the second-most visited destination for general Mexican shoppers, while New York was more favored by Mexican cultural shoppers. New York was the most popular destination for German travelers, shoppers and cultural shoppers.

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